Jacques Derrida On ‘Atheism’ and ‘Belief’

John Caputo: In Circumfession, you say that you “rightly pass for an atheist” (“je passé à just titre pour une athée”) Instead of just saying that you are an atheist, you know. Why don’t you just say, “I am an atheist” instead of “I rightly pass…” Is it because you have some doubts between the distinction between atheism and belief in God? Or some doubts about whether you are an atheist? I mean, suppose someone said, interpreted that to mean, “I am to all appearances an atheist, but appearances can be deceiving. So don’t be too sure, perhaps I am not”…?

Jacques Derrida: I, I’m not, simply the one who says “I.” On the other hand, I think that we may have some doubts about the distinction between atheism and belief in God. If the belief in God is not a cultural adaptation, if it doesn’t go through a number of atheistic steps –- that is, not only the critique of idolatry, of all sorts of images in prayers (especially in prayers) but also in the critique of onto-theology, the re-appropriation of God in metaphysics, which as Heidegger says, doesn’t know anything like prayer or sacrifice, the ontotheology –- so if one doesn’t go as far as atheism one doesn’t believe in God. So the true believers know that they run the risk, have to the run the risk, of being radical atheists – even [Emmanuel] Levinas says somewhere that in a certain way he’s an atheist because he doesn’t understand God as an existing Being. God is not an absolute Being – so if you go through what we know as negative theology, apophatic theological criticism, and so on, and deconstruction – if we don’t go as far as possible in this direction of atheism, then this belief in God is naïve and totally inauthentic.

Now, in order to be authentic – this is a word I almost never use – but in order to be authentic, belief in God must be exposed to the absolute doubt. And I know that the great mystics are experiencing this. They are experiencing the death of God, or the disappearance of God, or the non-existence of God, or God as being called as non-existent: “I pray to Someone who does not exist in the strict metaphysical meaning of ‘existence’ that is ‘to be present as an essence or substance’ or ousia.” When we think of epekeina tes ousia [Good beyond Being] according to Plato’s, even Heidegger’s, terms, “being beyond Being” the Good, in Plato’s terms being beyond Being, epekeina tes ousia. If I believe in what is beyond Being, then I believe as an atheist, in a certain way. Believing implies some atheism, however paradoxical it may say. I’m sure that the true believers know this better than others, that they experience atheism all the time – and this is part of their belief. In this epoche, this suspension of belief – suspension of the position, the existence of God – it is in this epoche that faith appears. The only possibility is faith in this epoche.

So when I say “I rightly pass as an atheist” I know that because of everything that I’ve done so far, say in terms of deconstruction and so on and so forth, I’ve given a number of signs of my being a non-believer in God in a certain way, an atheist. And nevertheless, although I confirm that it is right to say “I’m an atheist”, I can’t say myself “I am an atheist” as a position, see “I am” or “I know what I am”: “I am this, and nothing else and I’m identifying myself as an atheist.” I would never say… this would sound obscene: “I am.” I wouldn’t say “I am an atheist” or I wouldn’t say “I am a believer” either. These statements, I find them absolutely ridiculous: “I am a believer, I know that I am a believer.” Who knows that? Who can affirm and confirm, “I am a believer.” And who can say “I am an atheist?” I just write such sentences, that is the only thing I can say…

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